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Washington graduation rate is low, but there’s more to the stats

The numbers are in and Washington state is not producing as many high school graduates as other states across the nation.

But the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction argues that the numbers can be deceiving. Rather, it’s just more difficult to pass the state exams needed to graduate.

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“No disrespect to other states, but there are 50 states and 50 different graduation requirements,” Superintendent Chris Reykdal told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “We have a 24-credit requirement. There are states who are as little as 18 or 19 credits to get a diploma. We still have a high-stakes exit exam. We are counting our kids who are in dropout recovery programs, some states don’t. So these national metrics are really sticky.”

“I’d rather focus on where we are and what we have to do to close the gap for the 20 percent of our kids who aren’t graduating in four years,” he said.

The Seattle Times reported on numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics. Washington places 40th for its graduation rate (79.1 percent). Iowa is first place with a rate of 91.3 percent of its students graduating high school within four years. New Jersey comes in at 90.1 percent. At the bottom of the list is Washington D.C. with 69.2 percent.

Washington graduation numbers

The stats prompted Dori to argue that there is a correlation between states with low graduation rates and high numbers of illegal immigrants. About 8.8 percent of K-12 students in Washington state have parents who are undocumented immigrants. The state does rank higher in the number of illegal immigrants compared to others in the nation, according to the Pew Research Center.

Reykdal said that just looking at numbers fails to fully represent the situation. There is a range of factors that numbers just don’t reflect.

“I think a stronger correlation, which happens to align, is poverty,” Reykdal said. “The number one issue here is poverty; how many people you have in low wage, and low income. Immigrants, and those in migratory fields like agriculture, are going to be low income. So the West Coast has a lot more of that. The second thing are your students in special education, third are students who are English language learners because of the language barrier. That correlates to our migrant communities. Lastly, but very critically, is race. It still matters a lot. Particularly Native Americans, Latinos, and African Americans.”

Reykdal stresses that Washington’s spending on education is a big factor as well. But that is another example where looking at numbers won’t tell you much about the true situation, he said. Other states spend more per student, yet do not have high graduations rates. And some don’t spend as much but can boast a higher rate.

“It has nothing to do with the amount of funding per kid because we have such regional differences,” Reykdal said. “So Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire are always going to be high spenders per student because of a high cost of living. Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana are always going to be low. It has to do with how much of your private GDP do you put into your education system. Those are actually high reinvestment states that are relatively near the top. We invest about 3.1 percent of our private GDP back into our schools every year … the national average is 3.6 percent.”

Money can also be tied to attracting talented teachers. A significant portion of education spending goes to salaries, which is why more funding is needed, Reykdal argued.

“So in the Puget Sound we have young people who are increasingly saying, ‘I’m going to work in high tech, I’m going to work in software and biotechnology,’” he said. “And they are increasingly choosing not to teach in this state.”

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